Savvy clients are increasingly seeking more predictability and transparency in billing, requiring firms to brush up on their costing skills. But beyond that, fee earners and firms can also benefit from using estimates as a cost management tool.
Lawyers look unfavourably upon fee estimates and generally dislike discussing fees. Quote too high and you risk losing a deal; quote too low and you might be left with an unhappy client forking out more than they expected at the end of the day.
But are estimates the real problem? Many lawyers may argue it is impossible – especially in litigious matters – to predict the endless variables that can affect a final bill. However, consumer cost disputes may not necessarily be about the fees themselves, but inadequate solicitor-client communication regarding them.
An estimate itself may be difficult and at times require adjustments due to unexpected complications, however when done skilfully it can promote better client relations than not providing one.
In fact, there are several benefits derived from nurturing accurate fee estimation skills in your lawyers:
- Better realisation rates: Clients who are given an estimate at the start are better able to prepare payment after the case is over. If the final bill is close to the initial estimate, chances are the client will be able to make payment quicker, resulting in higher recovery rates.
- Organisation: The analytical breakdown process used to estimate a project helps lawyers take a systematic approach to complex matters, schedule workloads effectively and manage their time.
- Transparency: Solicitors are required by law to disclose any chargeable fees or to clients in writing if the costs are estimated to be above $750. Those who are hesitant to discuss costs (no matter how small) risk being perceived by clients as inexperienced or untrustworthy. Being upfront with fee information instils trust and confidence in clients, especially when their final bill does not come as a surprise.
Here are some tips for formulating accurate costs estimates.
Stick to a methodical system
Having a methodical process for formulating estimates ensures consistent and accurate results, enhances the estimator’s confidence in their abilities and reduces stress involved.
Segment the work
Breaking down a matter into smaller components not only provides a truer indication of fees, but it also enables a client to gain more insight into what is involved in their matter. To make this an easier task, create a range of matter templates that provide a task breakdown for typical matters.
Gather vital information
Make the most of an initial client interview to gain as much information as possible about circumstances that may affect costing. Drawing up a checklist of typical stages for that particular legal transaction or task may be useful as a guide.
Use historical data
Develop a database of historical data on average hours required to complete typical major tasks and sub-tasks. This can be used by lawyers to gauge how much time will be required for each step in a new matter.
Assess risk factors
Formulate a list of potential risk factors that are likely to impact fees, such as self-represented litigants or inexperienced counsel on the other side, foreign jurisdictions, multiple clients or other circumstances that may complicate the matter.
Discuss your estimate
Discussing estimates shows that you recognise costs are important to the client and are key to managing expectations. If unexpected events require a revision of the estimates, ensure the clients are aware of the changes made.
Use a legal practice management solution
Not only can using a legal practice management solution assist fee earners in managing client billing more efficiently, it can help keep track of billable time spent on similar tasks in the past, allowing you to prepare an accurate estimate for future work of an equivalent nature.
We’ve created a handy checklist from the above points featuring everything you need to cover when producing the perfect client estimate. Download your free copy here.
To minimise fee disputes due to ambiguity, ensure that an agreement to the cost of work is put in writing. Lawyers should also sit down with clients and explain what a list of common legal terms mean, or include a page of legal terms and definitions as an appendix to the estimate.
As clients gain more bargaining power over legal service providers, firms will notice increasing pressure to provide accurate fee estimates and transparency in their pricing.
Firms that want to set themselves apart from their peers should take the time now to develop good costing skills. This will promote trust and confidence in client relationships and fortify future profitability.